In March, Netflix premiered 13 Reasons Why. The dramatic depictions and riveting subject matter quickly resulted in Netflix declaring the program its most-viewed show.
Extremely troubling to psychology professionals across the nation is that 13 Reasons Why did not highlight the significant role mental illness plays in youth suicide. The show also fails to encourage younger viewers to discuss—with trained or caring adults—their thoughts about Hannah’s experiences and suicides.
The show, based on a book by the author Jay Asher, focuses on a fictional 17-year-old girl named Hannah. A victim of bullying and rape, she commits suicide and leaves behind a series of 13 tapes blaming others for her death.
With dark themes and graphic images, the show is already making its impact on children as young as 8 years old. The graphic scenes of Hannah’s suicide and her memorialization at the school following her death did not follow “best practices.”
Research supports that certain types of news coverage can actually increase the likelihood of suicide. According to ReportingOnSuicide.org, suicides shouldn’t be described in detail or in a sensationalistic way. Media outlets also should not show photos or videos of the grieving family, friends, memorials or funerals—all of which occurred in the show.
The most detrimental aspect of 13 Reasons Why was the depiction of teenagers leading secret lives that adults were unaware of and did not appear to care about. Countless times, adults in the show are portrayed as apathetic to their children’s lives (Justin’s parents) or not portrayed at all (Bryce’s parents).
And parents attempting to be helpful, like Clay’s and Hannah’s parents, were shut out at every opportunity. Clay even tells his mom there is nothing she can do to help him.
Every character portrayed in the show refused to acknowledge the support system that could have existed had they opened up to their parents about what was occurring in their lives. Rather than encouraging kids to turn to parents and adults in difficult times, this show portrays students keeping silent because they feel parents simply would not understand.
As a result, 13 Reasons Why may have encouraged young viewers to do “what Hannah did.” While unintentional, this show may have compounded suicidal ideation and attempts by vulnerable teenagers influenced by the dark themes and graphic images of rape and suicide.
The program concludes with Clay talking about the need for everyone to be more kind but ignores the significant role of mental illness in suicide. Schools should urge parents not to let children watch the show unsupervised, if at all. Parents and children must also discuss the grim events depicted.
It is critical that schools learn how to discuss suicide prevention and the importance of mental health treatment with their students and parents. Most schools are reluctant to address youth suicide and are unsure how to do so.
Teens are the most susceptible to suicide contagion and, despite common misconceptions, talking about suicide will not plant the idea of suicide into a student’s mind.
It must be made clear to students that suicide is almost always the result of an untreated mental illness—another aspect that was not portrayed in the show—and that no one person or thing is to blame for a suicide.
Students need to be encouraged to go to adults for help, as well as to school counselors and psychologists who are trained in suicide assessment. We must be aware that while a strong association between bullying and suicide exists, thankfully, a vast majority of bullying victims do not attempt or die by suicide.
Scott Poland is co-director of the Suicide and Violence Prevention Office at Nova Southeastern University, where. Vidhi Thakkar is a school psychology doctoral student.